Commentary / Japan

Mamoru Shinozaki: Japan's forgotten humanitarian

by Shaun O'dwyer

In 1940, Singapore was rocked by a spy scandal featuring drunk, kimono-clad British servicemen, “geisha girls,” prostitutes, a young English woman suspiciously linked to a suave, bespectacled Japanese press attache and the attache himself, Mamoru Shinozaki.

The latter found himself in Singapore’s High Court dock in October 1940, defending charges of espionage. Evidence presented at his trial revealed Shinozaki’s modus operandi: Frequenting bars and Young Women’s Christian Association dances, he enticed young soldiers to join him for parties at Japanese restaurants or at the home of his English woman friend, then asked them odd questions about British military affairs.

For all of his sophistication and English fluency, Shinozaki was no Japanese James Bond. His haunts were dance halls, not exclusive clubs or garden parties, and his marks were humble corporals at best, not officers — or their wives. In spite of Shinozaki’s generosity with cash, alcohol and paid-for assignations with prostitutes, these men did not provide any high quality intelligence. Eventually, Shinozaki’s activities aroused suspicion, and his work as a tour guide for two Japanese military officers, who took a suspicious interest in the state of Singapore’s military defenses, finally prompted the British authorities to arrest him. Following his trial, he was sentenced to over three years imprisonment at Singapore’s Changi Jail.

Shinozaki’s espionage activities deserve a footnote in historical studies of Japan’s preparations for the invasion of Malaya. Yet his later humanitarian wartime activities have received little attention, especially in Japan. In East Asia’s ongoing memory wars, the conduct of a man sometimes called the “Japanese Schindler” provides material for a fresh perspective on Japan’s wartime past that is dominated neither by anti-Japanese rancor, nor by craven apologetics for Japan’s militaristic past.

Shinozaki was born in Fukuoka in 1908 to a wealthy family. A youthful dalliance with socialism provided early signs of his later humanitarianism. According to historian Brian Bridges, Shinozaki studied journalism at Meiji University in Tokyo, though my own inquiries with Meiji University several years ago revealed no records of him having studied there.

Beginning in 1931 he took on a series of overseas postings as a journalist and press attache working for Japanese embassies. He arrived in Singapore in 1938 with a reputation as a ladies’ man, having been removed from a post in Berlin after an indiscreet affair with a German woman.

Three years later, and over one year into his imprisonment, Shinozaki’s life took a new turn. The intelligence gathered by the Japanese military officers whom Shinozaki had assisted in 1940, and subsequently relayed to the military strategist Lt. Col. Masanobu Tsuji, finally yielded dividends during Japan’s invasion of British Malaya in 1941-42. Led by Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, the Japanese 25th Army rolled up under-equipped, poorly led British and Commonwealth forces along the Malayan Peninsula and then overwhelmed Singapore’s garrison, compelling its surrender on Feb. 15, 1942.

Shinozaki was released from jail and appointed as a foreign affairs officer to the new military headquarters. It was from that point that he began his efforts to protect ethnic Chinese and Eurasian civilians in Singapore. One of his jobs in the early, chaotic days of the occupation was to issue “protection passes” to non-enemy foreigners, informing Japanese troops that they were to be allowed to go about their business unhindered.

In testimony given to the Singapore War Crimes Trials in March 1947 and later repeated in his 1975 autobiography “Syonan, My Story: The Japanese Occupation of Singapore,” Shinozaki related how he also began printing and issuing these passes to ethnic Chinese civilians who requested them. He issued those passes without thought of whether their recipients might be “communists or anti-Japanese elements” whom, he later realized, the Japanese occupation authorities were keen to track down.

On Feb. 18, the Japanese Army HQ ordered all male Singaporean Chinese between the ages of 18 and 50 to assemble at five locations in the city. Recent research estimated that over 70,000 men (and some women and children) had voluntarily presented themselves or were forcibly moved by the military police (Kenpeitai) to these assembly locations by March 3, where they were compelled to sit outside for many hours or even days, awaiting an “inspection.”

Though the command responsibility for what subsequently transpired remains murky, Shinozaki later accused Lt. Col. Tsuji of being this operation’s mastermind.

Tsuji and senior officers in the 25th Army, mindful of Japan’s experiences in the Sino-Japanese War, had convinced themselves that the Singapore Chinese population harbored anti-Japanese groups or fugitive guerillas who needed to be eliminated.

Yet, as Shinozaki found out, at the assembly locations there was no pretense of judicial process for identifying and trying such suspects; merely arbitrary criteria often decided on the whim of junior Kenpeitai officers for separating the “guilty” from the “innocent.”

Shinozaki had become well known for his generosity with the safety passes. He was now increasingly petitioned by frantic Chinese Singaporeans to secure the release of detained male family members. Over the next few weeks he rushed between different detention locations, pulling rank on or charming Kenpeitai officers to secure the release of handfuls or even dozens of men at a time. All the while, he continued to issue safety passes to Chinese civilians who requested them.

Shinozaki later claimed that through these means, he was able to save some 2,000 men from what became known to history as the Sook Ching Massacres. In his autobiography he estimated that 6,000 others deemed “guilty” by Kenpeitai inspectors were transported to secluded locations in Singapore where they were machine-gunned to death, their bodies thrown into mass graves or dumped at sea. It was “a crime” Shinozaki wrote, “that sullied the honor of the Japanese Army.” Other massacre toll estimates are higher; a Singapore government website on “Operation Sook Ching” suggests a figure of 25,000 victims.

Shinozaki earned the respect and affection of many Singaporean Chinese for his humanitarian actions. Yet for the next three years he was also an education and welfare official in the Japanese administration, and some of his schemes for protecting Singapore’s ethnic Chinese and Eurasian population, including a “Chinese Overseas Association” foundered or were coopted by ruthless occupation officials for their own ends.

Wartime newspapers also published Shinozaki’s exhortations to Singaporeans (including women) to work hard for Japan’s war effort. At a time when many poorer Singaporeans and Malayans were being sent abroad to work — and often die — as forced laborers, such exhortations would have rankled.

Following Japan’s surrender in August 1945 and the return of Singapore to British control, Shinozaki’s ethnic Chinese friends helped save him from detention as a war crimes suspect.

Yet controversies soon raged in Singaporean newspapers between Shinozaki’s defenders and detractors, and continued even after he gave valuable witness testimony at the 1947 war crimes trials of Japanese officers implicated in the Sook Ching Massacres.

Repatriated to Japan in 1947, Shinozaki vowed to persuade the Japanese government to “pay for all the damage and loss inflicted on the people of Malaya.” He did not succeed in this promise, but as a business executive and trade official he attempted to return to Singapore in the 1950s on ventures to improve commercial ties between Japan and Singapore. His record as a convicted spy prevented his entry until 1972.

In the long term, Singapore-Japan relations moved in the direction that he hoped for. Following an upsurge in Singaporean protests against Japan’s failure to pay war reparations, the Japanese government was persuaded in 1966 to provide $50 million in grants and loans to Singapore, though without explicit acknowledgement of war guilt.

Since that time, Singaporeans have continued to openly commemorate the wartime injustices and crimes committed during the Japanese occupation, but they also prize continued close diplomatic and commercial relations with Japan.

Shinozaki is still remembered in Singapore, but in Japan this spy, humanitarian and internationalist is largely forgotten. In Ishikawa Prefecture there is a bronze statue of Masanobu Tsuji, who accumulated a formidable tally of war atrocities before becoming a fugitive from justice after 1945.

Tsuji eventually returned to Japan unpunished and unrepentant, and was elected to the Diet as a conservative lawmaker in 1952. His statue, absurdly clad in morning dress represents a morally bankrupt “lost cause” ideology that willfully forgets the brutality of Japan’s wartime imperialism in Asia.

In contrast, a monument and suitable memorialization for Shinozaki would communicate a humane message about Japanese remembrance of past injustices, and about its close, peaceful engagement with the rest of Asia in the present.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at Kyushu University

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